Phil Rice looks at how much the game of professional rugby has changed through the years and argues that players are getting larger rather than more skillful
I was browsing through some old rugby international programmes the other day and was intrigued at how much the game has changed from the pre-professional era to today’s slick marketing-driven game. One of the programmes dated back to 1962 and was for an Ireland v Scotland match at Lansdowne Road.
Needless to say it was a black and white production and there were only 15 representatives for each team and no substitutes. However the most starkly differing fact was that only two players on the Irish team weighed in at over 15 stone (95kg) and Ireland’s full back, the famous Tom Kiernan, who went on to captain the British and Irish Lions in 1968, weighed in at a paltry 10 st. 10 lbs (68kg).
I imagined if a 19 year old was to roll up to his local rugby club nowadays weighing less than 11 stone he would be redirected to the local soccer ground. So what has happened to the old saying that rugby is a game for all shapes and sizes? Clearly this is no longer the case.
Youngsters with talent are now banished to the weights room with a protein shake and told to re-emerge when they are clinically obese before attempting to take to the field at their local rugby club. This has all happened under our noses and the impact on the sport has been immense.
The fall-out of these retrograde steps is that rugby is becoming more and more of an American Football replica and less of a participative sport that can be played by all sorts and sizes. You may say that there is still a level of rugby played by social devotees but actually this is a dying breed.
As kids grow up with the sport at mini rugby level they naturally copy their heroes and some of the hits at under 12 level are massive. Before you wheel out the old “it’s a man’s sport” routine just consider the affect such hits are having on the less physically developed kids and also importantly the affect it has on their watching parents.
“There’s no way my Johnny is going to get beaten up like that on a weekly basis.”
Don’t get me wrong I am all in favour of toughening up our kids by involving them in a physical sport and am not hypocritical enough to suggest that kids shouldn’t enjoy growing up playing a physical sport as I did, but the over emphasis on physicality at underage rugby is not healthy for the games development.
Winning at all costs at under 12 level is not the way forward. There has been much discussion recently over the next generation of Irish stars coming through the system. After a less than successful season for Irish rugby as a whole this type of analysis is not surprising.
However one of the players who is much talked about as a future prospect is Garry Ringrose, a speedy centre with Leinster who has shown exceptional skill during this season with his province. When it was suggested that he should be drafted into the Irish set-up, the reason for his exclusion was that he hadn’t developed physically enough for that next step in his progression.
Ringrose is 22 years old and 6 foot 2 inches tall, weighing in a 14 stone 5 lbs. He would have been the third heaviest player in the Irish team of 1962! He might even have been considered as a potential second row! Willie John McBride that mighty second row and captain of the 1974 winning Lions series against the Springboks, weighed in at 15 stone 8 lbs and was 6ft 2ins tall! He was considered a giant of the sport in every sense.
The physical development of players was totally predictable once the game turned professional. In a sport as physical as rugby the consequence of this is that increasingly players will impose their developed physicality on each other.
That is just human nature, survival of the fittest. However where does this lead a sport such as rugby?
It changes the dynamic of the sport completely. The sport becomes gladiatorial and the crowd applaud the collisions and it becomes a battle of the Titans.
So before our very eyes a sport that embraced the diminutive talents of a Shane Williams has evolved into a contest where size means everything and teams increasingly win through out-muscling each other.
The sad consequence of this can be that rugby becomes predictable and boring, where defences dominate and flair becomes sidelined by physical brutality. Of course this development just gains momentum unless action is taken by the law-makers.
How else can a brake be applied to the juggernaut that is hurtling out of control.
Players safety has become a big issue this season with the rise in the incidents of concussion and the concern for the players welfare in later life.
Boxing has skirted this issue and failed to grab the nettle in dealing with a factor that has impacted on the numbers participating in that sport. But as mentioned earlier rugby has been traditionally known as a sport for all. Sadly this description is becoming less applicable with every season.
How can the law-makers halt this progression?
For a start they need to recognise the impact the emphasis on players physical development is having on the sport. The IRB needs to discuss measures which reduce the benefit of just imposing physicality on the opposition. The skillful player needs to be accommodated and rewarded and not marginalised as is currently happening.
Areas that should be considered include reducing the importance of the scrum by awarding free kicks instead of penalties, where one team dominates another, thus encouraging a running game.
Consideration for reducing the height of tackles needs to be scrutinised. Flailing boots in the direction of players heads needs to be dealt with vigorously with lengthy bans.
Referees need to be given support where they punish flagrant attempts to physically injure and disable the opposition. Rugby is a wonderful game when it is played with skill and aggression, the hallmarks of the traditional game.
As with many sports the advent of professionalism has brought about a changed dynamic and it behoves the lawmakers to recognise this and to administer change before the sport loses it’s way completely.